OK, I've put in about 25 hours on Grey Silo over the 1st 3 days of the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic, so I'm starting to feel like I've got a feel for the course. It's one of those links-style upscale public courses you often find in upstate or western NY or southern Ontario, not so different from, say, the Turning Stone courses in Vernon, NY, Ravenwood in Victor, NY, Harvest Hill in Orchard Park, NY, or Seneca Hickory Stick in Lewiston, NY (all of which I've played). It's not my favorite style of course design, as I grew up playing more tree-lined courses and am not a big fan of so many undulations in the fairways and greens, the combination of wide fairways and super-severe wetlands very close to their edges, and the too-manicured feel compared to real links courses (which, for those who are into 18th-century aesthetic and landscape design, can attain the sublime rather than remaining merely picturesque, as so many faux-links courses tend to be). Still, like all links courses, Grey Silo depends as much on the wind as on any design features to protect it, even more so from the highly-skilled golfers you find on the LPGA. So here are a few things to keep in mind as you watch final round tomorrow, first about the front 9 and in my next post the back.
#1 (par 4, 377 yards): This usually plays as the 18th hole, but the routing of the course makes it impossible to play it that way; along with the usual #1/current #2, it's way out in the boonies, equally far from the clubhouse as from the bulk of the course, so it would be impossible for spectators to get from the usual #17/current #18 to it, not to mention they'd have to destroy a lot of wetlands to accommodate everyone who'd want to see the closing hole. Even though it was designed as a closing hole, I think it works really well as an opening hole (and I love having a short par 5 as the closing hole, but more on that later). It's a slight dogleg right with a creek cutting across the fairway about 275 yards out there and wetlands all down the right side, very close to the fairway, and cutting into it near the tee complex, as well. With wetlands surounding the hole on the left, too, and 2 mounded traps guarding the left neck of the fairway, the effect is to be hitting almost a blind shot into a near-island fairway. From the creek, it's fairly sharply uphill, especially near the green, which is guarded by a big mound and a deep trap on the left and a pair of traps on the front and middle right. The green is at a 45-degree angle from the fairway, with the left side closer to the players than the right side. You can divide it into 3 sections, including a middle tier that's sharply downhill in the very back of the green and can send wayward shots at the middle of the green either to the front-left or back-right lower tier. Even though it's a visually intimidating drive for an amateur, it's a driver or less for the LPGAers I watched play the hole on Friday. Most everyone I saw put themselves in good position to go for the pin, which was cut front left that day, but nobody tried to get too cute and bring the left bunker into play. Most ended up in the very front of the green, just left of the right trap. Maybe they were hoping for a kick left, but it wasn't happening. They used a back right pin on Saturday, which to me is the toughest spot. Wonder where it'll be Sunday!
#2 (par 4, 379 yards): This is usually the 1st hole and it turned out to be the 1st hole I saw on Thursday, when Ryann O'Toole birdied it, Hannah Yun parred it, and Christine Song doubled it. This one has junk all down the left side after the 1st 100 yards (which Song found), the fairway bulges out to the right in the usual landing area for many of the LPGAers (a driver or 3-wood typically), and there's a nice little upslope there if you don't mind risking the cart path (which Yun found that day) or skipping over it into more junk that protects the 1st tee. Some players opted to go for the neck past the bulge to give themselves a shorter shot in (Ryann O'Toole and Ai Miyazato did so on Thursday). It's definitely a green you can be aggressive on your approach shot to, as it's the only one besides 10 and 18 not to be bunkered and one of the flatter ones on the course, although you have to be careful of mounds on the front and back left and front right that can repel your ball and be aware of a small ridge in the middle-right of the green that can send it a little left toward the middle of the green. I saw 2 disasters, 2 bogeys, and 3 birdies from the 15 players I saw play it on Thursday and Friday, so I'd count it as one of the easier holes on the course.
#3 (par 3, 170 yards): This is a tough hole to birdie and I saw a lot of good par saves here, most notable a sweet 10-footer from Anna Nordqvist on Friday when she missed the green pin-high right and short-sided herself from tougher rough than is usually found at Grey Silo. Christine Song played it the best of anyone I saw, making a good 2-putt par from 40 feet on Thursday and sticking her approach to Friday's front-right pin for a birdie, but Ryann O'Toole followed up Thursday's birdie with a bogey and both Ai Miyazato and Kirby Dreher bogeyed it Thursday. What makes it so hard? Well, the green kind of curls around a big, deep trap on the left and, as is typical at Grey Silo, is built up near it so that it forms a big mound in the middle of the green, with the back half of the green sloping pretty hard to the back. As a result, it's very easy for a shot hit to the middle of the green to kick hard to the back or over if you fly it too far or bring it in too hot (as happened to Yun and Miyazato on Thursday), for shots missed just a little right to be pushed further right when they land (although a little mound 3/4 of the way back on the right might keep you from bounding off the green entirely), and for short shots to stay short. As hard as it is for players, it's a great hole for spectators, with an amphitheatre-style hilly area behind the green. It's also the last time you'll see larger trees on the course for a long time, although unlike on 2 these should never come into play.
#4 (par 4, 402 yards): Even with a helping wind, this is one of the toughest holes on the course. By my count, 8 of the 21 players I've seen play the hole bogeyed it. The fairway isn't as wide as many on the course and it's guarded by a nasty little pot bunker on the left (which Ai Miyazato found on Thursday a few minutes before play was called) and framed by wetlands all the way down the right, so you have to be accurate off the tee. You also have to be a bit lucky, as the generally left-to-right sloping fairway's undulations are particularly severe in the usual landing areas for the players (between 240 and 270 out from what I saw) and you could easily end up with a sidehill or sidehill-downhill lie. From the fairway, which is protected by a ridge all the way down the left, it can also be difficult to gauge what the wind is doing over the last half of your approach shot. On Saturday morning, which was generally calm, a lot of players couldn't figure out that there was a decently-strong wind helping them and hence went to the back or over the green. What's more, even though the last 100 yards or so of the fairway slope gently uphill, the green kind of funnels toward its back-right quadrant, except for a diagonal running across the 1st 1/3 of the green that's still uphill. With pins in the middle and right of the green the 1st 3 days, the course set-up hasn't even brought the 2 traps guarding the left side of the green into play. Wonder if they'll go back left Sunday? There's a little mound there that can make things interesting....
#5 (par 5, 503 yards): As I mentioned before, this hole begins a make-or-break stretch on Grey Silo, where you'll find a lot of birdie opportunities. I saw Hannah Yun and Mina Harigae hit this par 5 in 2, but I also saw some pretty big mistakes, including Ryann O'Toole losing her momentum on Thursday when it took her 3 shots to get the ball in the hole from 25 feet away from the pin and bogeys from a previously-flawless Anna Nordqvist on Friday and from Na Yeon Choi and Hanna Kang on Saturday. What makes this short par-5 dangerous is a huge pond that comes into play on the drive and 2nd shot. The closer you get to it, the shorter your attempt to reach it in 2 is (and the designers encourage you to go for it by having the fairway bulge out just past a trap that's an easy carry for most players), but if you try that, your angle to the green on this sharp dogleg left is much tougher. Plus, you're hitting uphill to a green that's protected by a trap on the right and a pair of terraced traps on the left that are well below the raised surface of the back-left quadrant of the green. With a small mound in its front-right quadrant, as well, there's a kind of valley that runs diagonally through the middle of the green, wider at the front and back than in the very middle of it. So it's easy to make the 2nd shot to this par 5 a big risk-reward decision, as the course set-up people did on Saturday by sticking the pin in the middle of that back-left tier and forcing most players to try to play a draw that threads the needle between the front-right and front-left bunkers that guard the green and chase it toward the pin. Even though this is an easy par 5 if you play it safe, most players I saw decided the reward was worth the risk and I did see a lot of birdies on this hole.
#6 (par 5, 522 yards): This is another neat little birdie hole, with another trap you can aim over to a speed slot into another leftward bulge in the fairway that cuts into the pond and wetlands that run to the end of the 1st half of the fairway (which is separated from the 2nd half by a 10-yard-thick strip of rough that the longest hitters on tour might have to worry about). Even if you're not long enough or accurate enough to challenge that trap off the tee, you can aim right of it and still get a kick forward, although the righter you go, the more your ball will kick to the right instead of forward. From there, it's all uphill to a green that's protected by a trap about 50 yards short right of it and a trio of traps just to the left of it, so you have to decide if you want to lay back short of that right trap or try to put it into the neck between the traps. I didn't see many players take advantage of the bailout area past the right trap and to the right of the green; most chose instead to get as close to the left traps as possible on Saturday, despite the fact that the pin was cut front left, right under another back-left-quadrant mound (this one steeper than the one on the 5th). But I think if the pin is back-left Sunday, you'll see more players going there. This is another great hole for spectators, with another hilly amphitheatre-style viewing area behind the green, but it can be tough for players, as there's a lot of foot traffic near the nearby 7th tee and 12 green because that's where spectators enter the course, plus there are sounds of construction and loud trucks off to the right, as well.
#7 (par 4, 417 yards): The longest par 4 on the course is one of the trickiest, too, as the main landing area for the players is guarded on the right by a huge, deep trap with a mound that's too far for all but the longest on tour to blast it by and narrows down to a real bottleneck on the left with a trio of traps that come into play despite being overshadowed visually from the tee by a pot bunker on the left side of the fairway well short of the closest one. We're talking a 20-yard needle to thread at about 260 yards out (which might seem like nothing to golfers just coming off of Locust Hill, but is quite a contrast to most of the driving holes at Grey Silo). But just about everyone I watched challenged it, and most made it. It's easy to find the left rough past it, though, and with an uphill shot to a green that's guarded by a deep bunker to its front right and has a back-left to front-right ridge running through it that kicks shots leftwards, even a 130-yard shot can be a real challenge. So far they've kept the pins to the front and right/back-right of the green to bring that front-right trap into play. Wonder if they'll give them a break on Sunday after a nasty one right behind the trap today?
#8 (par 4, 328 yards): This is a neat-little risk-reward hole. You can lay up with a 5-wood or hybrid, staying away from the pond on the left, the wetlands to the right, and trap that defines the end of the fat part of the fairway. Or you could take a 3-wood or driver and try to get it past that trap into the sharply-uphill neck of the fairway just to its right--or be even bolder and trust that your draw off the right wetlands will find the right-bulging area of the fairway that runs all the way up to the right side of the green. I don't see the point of it, and most players saw it my way, but on Friday Stacy Lewis put it in the neck and Kirby Dreher just missed it (neither made birdie, although Ai did when she layed up--the only birdie I saw in 21 tries, even with a very accessible position right in the middle of the green on Saturday and no position that's particularly tough). I saw one of the best pars of the week on this hole, as Na Yeon Choi pulled her lay-up into the pond and got up-and-down from the rough. What made her shot so impressive was what made it difficult for everyone else to stick their approaches: a highly-elevated green that's much more affected by the wind than you can feel from the fairway and nothing nearby to help you figure out what it's doing up there. I don't know why players have had so much difficulty making putts on this green, as there are small mounds at 9 o'clock and 12 o'clock but not too much undulation otherwise. Maybe having the first fairly flat green in a long while throws them off? Or is it crowd noise from the 4th green?
#9 (par 3, 174 yards): This is a less-nasty preview of #17 (on which more later), with a kidney-shaped green like #3 with the mounded trap in front rather than to the left. The wind definitely affects your tee shots in a big way and you might have to deal with some crowd noise from the 4th fairway. There is a little bit of a kind of crescent-moon-shaped backstop near the back of the green, but it's the big mound off that deep front bunker that will affect approach shots the most. Missing long or right isn't death, but it's close. There's no need to take a huge risk on this hole with so many birdies elsewhere on the course. Amy Yang came into it having birdied 4 of her 1st 8 holes, lost her approach right of the green, made bogey, and lost all her momentum, turning what could have been a super-low round into a disappointing 68 today. Looking ahead to the final round, I wonder if we'll see a front left pin on 9? That would be the most accessible quadrant, and it hasn't been used yet....
I know Brittany Lang thinks the back is easier than the front (and for her it is, as she's torn up the last 3 holes every day, going -6 over those 9 holes already!), but I think if you're on, you can go even lower under par on the front than the back (Exhibit A: Sandra Changkija's 30 on Thursday; Exhibit B: So Yeon Ryu's 31 on Friday). Lexi Thompson is -6 on 5 and 6 alone this week, for crying out loud! But it can also hurt you badly, as 38s by Shanshan Feng and Suzann Pettersen today show. All in all, a very interesting side!